Yangzhou is beautiful in springtime as the willows by the river and canal turn lushly green and various flowers pop up adding bright colours to the city. Plum blossom trees were in full bloom first and we could smell its delicate fragrance wherever we went. Soon after that the cherry blossoms and all kinds of spring flowers followed.
Usually Yangzhou in spring should be overflowing with tourists and cars. But from the second week of March, Omicron cases escalated in different parts of China. Anyone coming to Yangzhou from other provinces were required to take three-day self-isolation and seven consecutive negative CPR test results. Inevitably very few visitors are around and much less traffic on the street. Many places such as the massage parlours, public bathhouses and some restaurants have to be closed.
Many alleys and individual areas were cordoned off from time to time. Contact tracing is reinforced again everywhere and we have to scan the health code even returning home (before March it was required only for specific places like shopping malls, supermarkets and tourist destinations). More CPR test checkpoints sprang up all over the places and we could hear loudspeakers blasting recorded messages on the streets every few days reminding people to do testing.
One time, when I presented my health code to the volunteer at our apartment lobby, she became quite nervous as it showed that I was in Nanjing (which is only an hour drive from Yangzhou) within the past 14 days. I was immediately surrounded by two more people asking me various questions in local dialect since there were reported cases in Nanjing after I visited. Considering I could only guess what they were asking by picking out the common words like “CPR test” and “symptoms”, I did manage to stay very calm and explained that I visited the countryside 13 days ago and long before any cases emerged. What a huge relief it was when they finally let me through.
We have made a prescient move by stocking up both our food and pet food since February. From early March onward, logistics and deliveries have been much disrupted by lockdowns in various places. We find many items in the supermarkets running low. But so far, fresh produce supply in the wet market is fine.
When we first arrived, we sometimes spend an afternoon at a small coffee shop which also bakes its own bread. But one time they had to close early and the owner suggested us to go to his friend’s coffee shop. He phoned Niu Niu (妞妞) and drove us to her cafe, Valley Workroom (谷里) inside an old alley in Dingjiawan (丁家灣). Only then we realized that we have already been to this cafe before.
Niu Niu was already washing up and getting ready to close when we arrived. So we did not order anything and just sat there. She appeared a little aloof at first but as we started chatting about the books she has in the shop, she became more animated and we ended up talking for over an hour. Little did we know that this long chat would turn out to be the beginning of our beautiful friendship.
We went back to Valley Workroom a few days later but Niu Niu was very busy and we didn’t get the chance to talk. So it was a pleasant surprise when she texted Kin and invited us to have hotpot dinner at her shop. We met her friend Pan Pan (潘潘) and we had a lovely evening. From then on we become a fixture in her coffee shop.
Our friendship with Niu Niu and Pan Pan gives us a much deeper connection with Yangzhou. Niu Niu is from Yangzhou and Pan Pan is from Jilin (吉林) the north eastern part of China. They are very good friends and Pan Pan often helps at the cafe. And through them, we learn more about what growing up in China is like.
When Niu Niu was in secondary school, she had to live in dormitory and only went home once a month. It’s quite a common practice around China. She said that she had weekly examinations – it’s all about studying and life is monotonous.
Pan Pan lives in Yangzhou with her mother. Although she’s much younger than us, she had been through a lot as her family underwent some dramatic upheavals. We were simply overwhelmed and speechless when she told us her story. We are so well-protected and lucky that often we take what we have for granted. And we are thankful that fate has brought us to meet these two wonderful and talented young women.
From the young people we met in our trip, we learnt a common thread in their upbringings. Parents devote all their energy and effort to provide the best for their only hope and joy. As the children grow up and are more educated, they start contemplating what life is all about and what they aspire. In some cases, they feel a sense of disconnectedness with their parents owing to their differences in values and life goals.
Since the parents had experienced much hardship when they were young, earning money and providing a stable life for their child is the main goal of their lives. Inevitably, they want their child to live the kind of life that deem best in their eyes. Children may feel torn between following the path set by the parents (such as getting married and start a family by certain age) and following their own hearts. This reflects one of the results of the one-child policy as all hopes and expectations rest on the shoulders of the single child.
Another prevalent phenomenon is that many parents leave hometowns to find better opportunities in bigger cities. Sometimes it’s just the father but if both the parents have to find work, often their young children are left behind. Some children may not have memory of their parents until they are about five or six years old. Therefore the one-week National holiday and the Chinese New Year holiday are so important as it may be the only time the parents can see the family and spend time with their children.